Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Cardinals complete fifth season as team

By Collin Bolebruch

When SUNY Plattsburgh hired Mike Howard as director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation in 2016, it had 17 varsity athletic programs. Howard knew he wanted to expand on that figure. He looked to Cardinals men’s lacrosse, which hadn’t missed the SUNYAC tournament since 2012, and knew one potential team made the most sense: women’s lacrosse.

The SUNYAC, the athletic conference 17 Plattsburgh sports compete in, has supported women’s lacrosse since 1997. SUNY Cortland and SUNY Oneonta both have programs dating back to the 1970s, and the seven other conference members — SUNY Brockport, SUNY Buffalo State, SUNY Fredonia, SUNY Geneseo, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Oswego and SUNY Potsdam — have had teams since the 1990s. Plattsburgh, which played its inaugural season in 2019, is the newcomer by 20 years.

Cardinals women’s lacrosse’s foundation was built by Brockport Golden Eagles. Two of the most important figures in the creation and development of the team, former Head Coach Julia Decker and current Head Coach Kelly Wall, were once stars for the SUNYAC rival. 

Decker was Brockport’s third all-time leading goal scorer when she graduated in 2009. After putting the stick down, she immediately made the jump to coaching. Decker stayed in the SUNYAC, becoming an assistant coach at Geneseo from 2010 to 2011.

Two seasons and a SUNYAC tournament berth later, Decker took on the task of running Hilbert College’s club program in 2012. Decker coached the team in the year leading up to the foundation of a varsity program, an experience that helped her land the Plattsburgh job five years later.

Decker served as assistant coach at Fresno State from 2013 to 2014, earning Division I experience. She landed her first head coaching gig in 2015, leading Division II Fort Lewis through the 2017 season. Before becoming a Cardinal, Decker already had a diverse resume.

There was a gap of almost two years between Decker’s hiring at Plattsburgh and the program’s first season. Howard said landing Decker was “really lucky” for the program. She ran a club team during the 2017-18 academic year, recruiting players and building a coaching staff. Decker remembers practices where just five or six students showed up.

Decker built a staff of three other coaches, including Wall. Though Decker never played with Wall as Golden Eagles, their Brockport connection is what brought them together. Brockport Head Coach Stephen Wagner reached out to Decker with a “glowing” recommendation of Wall, who had just finished her career under Wagner as the all-time goal scorer. Wall’s assistant job at Plattsburgh was her first coaching experience.

Decker and Wall were tasked with the unique challenge of pitching a program to new recruits with nothing to fall back on. There were no winning seasons, no championships, no All-Americans — they couldn’t even say the team had won a game before. Decker pitched a vision and the opportunity to be a part of history, spending “a lot of time” on the road visiting recruits.

Jayne Smith / Cardinal Points

“We wanted to build it into a championship program. Obviously, that’s something that takes time, but I was determined to just start by developing team culture,” Decker said. “I think it was important to just focus on that process.”

Headed into the inaugural 2019 season, Plattsburgh boasted a roster of 21 players, including walk-on upperclassmen and brand-new recruits. To succeed, it was important for the athletes to buy into what Decker was selling.

Emily Caoili, a member of the inaugural team, finished her career atop the all-time points list. She didn’t plan on playing college lacrosse, but Plattsburgh convinced her to join the team. With no upperclassmen to look up to or a team structure to follow, Caoili said everyone had to start from scratch. 

“We were all in the same boat and I think we all knew it was going to take time to build something solid,” Caoili wrote in a text. “Even though we didn’t win as many games as we would have wanted to that year, it was still one of my favorite years because of the amazing friendships I made.”

The first Cardinals team finished the season 2-15 and without a conference win. The record doesn’t reflect the team’s success. 

“It was cool to see everything come to fruition for us, to go from those low-attended club practices and not really having that commitment to our first year where we had a team full of people,” Decker said. “All those firsts that came with that year, it was really exciting, and something to be celebrated.”

The Cardinals opened 2020, its second season, hot. It won its first four games, doubling the previous season’s win total at 4-0. Plattsburgh’s season ended there. With a little more than a week left until conference play, the season was canceled because of COVID-19. The team, still attempting to establish itself, didn’t know what was going to happen.

Wall said the hiatus “took a toll” on the players. Former player Allie Vangas credited the team and its structure for being back and ready to play.

“When it came to actually getting back on the field, it wasn’t too hard, because they all meshed well and knew how each other played,” Vangas said. “I think, if we didn’t have that teamwork, it probably would have been [difficult].”

Midfielder Lindsay Guzzetta pointed to Decker and Wall for keeping the team on track.

“I think they did a great job in overcoming a lot of obstacles that were in the way because nobody really knew how to handle it,” Guzzetta said. “They just tried their best and did the best they could with what they were dealt.”

Like other spring sports, women’s lacrosse played an abbreviated schedule in 2021. Prior to the season, Wall took a leave from coaching. The team played just eight games, playing Cortland, New Paltz, Oneonta and Potsdam twice each. The Cardinals swept the Bears, earning its first two SUNYAC wins. Plattsburgh finished the year 2-6.

Jayne Smith / Cardinal Points

Three seasons into the program’s existence, Plattsburgh had only played a full slate of games once. Midfielder Caroline Noia said it felt like two years were taken away from the team. Between quarantining, lack of diverse competition and little playing experience, COVID stunted the team’s development.

“[It] turned into a little bit of a longer process,” Howard said. “Losing that year or so of recruiting time, I think, set the program back more than other programs.”

After the 2021 season, Decker took a hiatus from coaching.

“Those two years were definitely a struggle and I think that’s what led me to want to step away and take a break from coaching,” Decker said. “I’m really proud of the progress the program has made and it still holds a very near and dear place in my heart.”

Wall found out through a conversation with Decker that the position in Plattsburgh was vacant. Decker encouraged Wall to apply for the position. Wall’s familiarity with the program was a contributing factor to her eventual hiring.

Wall, handed the reins and reunited with the team, was ready to see hard work turn into wins. Midfielder Emma McLaughlin, then a junior, thought the hardships brought a different kind of hunger to the team.

“Coming back the following season, people were way more excited to play and finally have a full season of lacrosse,” McLaughlin said. “I honestly think that [2020] season boosted our confidence because we finished 4-0.”

In her first season as head coach, 2022, Wall led the team to a 5-9 record, missing the SUNYAC tournament by just one win. The team started to gain traction and respect in the conference, and most importantly, started to develop team culture.

“I’m really most proud to look back to freshman year and what the team was to what it is now, with the atmosphere and how close we all are,” Noia said. “Hopefully, every year when new players come in, they’re able to look back at what the team was and how we’re able to improve every year.”

The 2023 Cardinals built off the previous season, finishing the season 7-8 and resetting the win record. A mid-season conference slide left the team, again, one win outside of playoffs, but Wall knows SUNYAC teams don’t look at Plattsburgh like they used to.

“It’s been amazing to see their growth from the beginning to now, to where teams are actually having to scout us. They’re nervous about us,” Wall said. “It’s only going to get harder for other teams to play us. We’re not just going to roll over and be an easy win.”

With the Cardinals’ season over, the team said goodbye to the 2023 senior class. This year’s seniors included some crucial players, like all-time points leader Guzzetta and all-time ground ball leader McLaughlin. Guzzetta thinks the program is headed in the right direction.

“This was the best team that we’ve had and we’re all very close now. It just feels like a better culture than what we came into,” Guzzetta said. “For years going forward, everybody will already have a set team culture.”

Wall has confidence in the younger players to step up next season. The team is still working toward its goal of making the playoffs, and this year was an important step of the process. Returning players like scorer Cynthia Barnosky, ground ball scooper Caitlin Nash, captain Janey Adams and the goalie duo of Johanna Malone and Lilla Nease have big shoes to fill.

“I’m excited to see what they’re going to do now that seniors are gone. I think there’s a lot of potential in this group right here. I’m not nervous at all about what they can do,” Wall said. “They have to bail themselves out. They have to do the work.”

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